The Affair, Season 4.
My feeling at the end of Season 4 of The Affair, beyond that it was bleak, and beyond the Ruth Wilson Cryptogram, was that we now officially have less than we started with. That is, for all the risks they took and all the passion and romance that fuelled Noah and Helen and Cole and Alison all this time, none of them, at the end of this season, has any love to speak of, after all that.
Each of them is alone – and not just alone, but aware that what they ran to, in almost every case, was handicapped by what they ran from. All the characters have newer, fresher, broken relationships in one form or another, more difficult relationships with their kids, and no great love affairs to lean on.
Which makes me rephrase what I said earlier. Because of course, there’s no romance to speak of – but there is love. Helen and Noah, who have always known each other inside and out, will always love each other. Even though in the finale she says she might not love Vik the way she loved Noah, we all know that the two of them have the kind of love that, now that they’ve survived hurting each other, is going to endure forever, because what better definition for love is there than someone who knows all the worst parts of you and still has you in their life? How can you not fall in love with someone who says ‘I see all the most terrible parts of you and I have not run away screaming? I continue to let you exist, whether in my social circle or in my bed’?
Who’s Gonna Watch You Die? Simple question, on the soundtrack. Ultimately it’s not about sex and it’s not about love or sweet words. It’s ‘who’s going to acknowledge who you were, all the way through your life, when your time is up?’ What would happen if the answer is nobody?
The unexpected love extends far beyond the former spouses, too. For me the most arresting part of the season is the Cole, Noah and Anton road trip, where over and over again Cole shows Noah the worst sides of himself. He picks fights with people they run into – he almost drives them into traffic. When he’s reeling from the devastating news of Alison’s apparent suicide, Cole beats the sh-t out of Noah… and Noah’s right there with him, immediately after, and when Cole runs away with the urn containing ‘Y’all’s Ex Wife’ (easily the best comic relief line of the season)...Noah is there over and over, and what do you call that but love?
Well. The other word for it is family.
One of the biggest things that separates The Affair from other prestige family dramas is that the young children aren’t just placeholder facts about our main characters, they are changed and affected by the imperfect people who happen to be their parents. We worry about Stacey and Trevor, who are in a more stable place for a moment – but never for long. Joanie’s got myriad adults who love her but none of them know what to say. Whitney is, in Helen’s precise parlance, a bitch – but she’s also correct at least half the time. Cole’s mother, the ultimate in unconditional love, comes to him at his worst moment and confesses that she manipulated him to discover his father’s affair, hoping to teach him something about life, and we get the distinct impression it was misguided at best, but he’s seen her flaws and sits beside her, still. Even at the Moon Ceremony, Helen opens up in spite of herself when she talks about the ways that her children are not just her legacies or her most precious gifts or any other cliché, but the people who expanded her world and made it bigger. Put another way, they’ve seen who she is and know her flaws, and yet, they’re still in her world. Even Sierra is about to become a flawed parent in a flawed circumstance – but we know enough about her and her spiritual leanings to know she’ll be heartbreakingly honest with her child about all the ways she might not measure up.
And what separates Alison from everyone else is that she doesn’t have that. And maybe never did.
“Alison would HATE this”, Cole cries about the ‘beaching ceremony’. He might be right, but Athena is determined to believe that Alison is at peace, the way she never was in life, despite Athena and Cole and Noah all fervently, constantly, wishing she would be. Hell, even Luisa wanted Alison to be all right so that she and Cole could have a chance… the one that never came.
Alison, in her own mind, was too sad and depressive for her husbands, for her lovers. She was not important enough for her father to acknowledge her for her entire life – or so we’re told she believes. She wasn’t enough for Gabriel, even though she swore to protect him. And ultimately she isn’t enough for Joanie – or that’s the narrative that’s going to be sold, give or take whether the mystery of Ben is uncovered next season or becomes the closed book.
It could feel like victim blaming to write this way. To say that Alison ultimately wasn’t loved, or couldn’t love, and that’s why she died – it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not what I mean. But she was the one who cursed herself for her mistakes over and over again, from the first frame of the first episode until the last – where Noah and Helen are blithe and Cole, as his mother points out, is a survivor.
And this is where the prickly, uncomfortable storytelling I always adore bumps up against the realities of television production, as Ruth Wilson's exit from the show became a gossip topic nobody expected.
Showrunner Sarah Treem said that Wilson wanted to leave the show ahead of the fifth season – and of course, on CBS This Morning, she said, “I did want to leave, but I’m not allowed to talk about why.”
The speculation that it was about money never held water for me, despite Wilson having talked about the inequality of pay between her and Dominic West. This just isn’t how things like that play out, particularly for female leads on prestige dramas in their final seasons. Many a person pushes for a raise in a situation like that, doesn’t get it – and gears up to make the final season their Emmy reel. But that’s not what happened.
To me, the difference between Alison and the other characters, and the situations they find themselves in, is abundantly clear. The more selfish you are, like Noah and Helen, the more ridiculous but amusing the situation you find yourself in – whether you’re hitting on your own daughter in a hot tub or sleeping with someone half your age at a moon collective, being attacked in jail or even sleeping with your Uber clients like Cole in happier times.
But she was never, ever reckless and free and smashing cars with her hair half done – I’m sure it was exhausting for Ruth Wilson to always be pushing against the crushing guilt of Gabriel’s death and her own mental health, like Sisyphus, season after season. I’d wager she asked for something new – and that the writers, and the network, said no. This is Alison’s journey. Or that whatever stories they talked about couldn’t come to pass quickly enough for her liking. We’ve seen Noah and Cole and Helen have big ups and big downs, but Alison’s ups were always cautious baby steps that inevitably gave way to the downs the show most liked to explore.
But here’s the thing – there are non-disparagement clauses in every contract in Hollywood (something we heard about at the women's showrunner panels earlier this year). You can’t publicly denigrate a show you’ve worked on while it’s on the air without a risk if a lawsuit.
So if Wilson wanted to pull a Katherine Heigl, and say, “I don’t like the show’s writing for Alison, I think it’s weak or repetitive or etc, and that’s why I wanted to leave”, she’d be in breach of contract. Which she very neatly underlined when she said “I’m not allowed to talk about why.”
I can’t know if this is true for sure, but I feel it in my gut. The details may be slightly different than what I’ve outlined here, but it has the shape and size of something that fits. These are the kinds of secrets that stay inside the family of the show, the art-vs-commerce struggles that make the business so fascinating – and particularly that make TV my favourite complicated medium. Unlike books and movies, nothing in TV ever stands still, and you have to roll and adjust and sometimes there are bumps in the road.
I cannot lie. I am excited at the idea of Alison’s absence creating new avenues on the final season of The Affair. I’m curious about whether we still relish the hubris of Noah without the balance of Alison. How this will move all the chess pieces around the board. When stories come to a natural close, it means there’s time for new ones to begin… and I am, as ever, anxious and bracing for how closing the final chapter will change our perspectives again.
See you in Season 5.